- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A bill designed to reduce the toxic algae in Lake Erie cleared an Ohio legislative panel Tuesday after it was changed to give some farmers a way to temporarily avoid penalties if they violate a proposed ban on spreading manure.

The revision was among several approved by the Ohio House’s agriculture committee. Both the full House and Senate are expected to vote on the measure Wednesday and send it to the governor.

The legislation would be the first passed in an effort to slow the spread of the algae since August, when a toxin contaminated the drinking water for more than 400,000 people in northeastern Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

In addition to banning farmers in much of northwestern Ohio from spreading livestock manure on frozen fields or when heavy rain is in the immediate forecast, the bill would end the dumping of dredged sediment in the lake within five years and require training for companies that haul manure away from large livestock farms.

Field runoff from manure and chemical fertilizers is among the main contributors to algae blooms, which also have been linked to oxygen-depleted dead zones in the lake where fish can’t survive.

A change made by the House’s agriculture committee would allow for a one- or two-year exemption for certain livestock farmers who are trying to comply with the rules on applying manure in winter months. The panel’s chairman said it would give small- and medium-livestock farming operations more time to deal with the costs associated with storing manure when their fields are covered with snow and rain.

Rep. Brian Hill, chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, said he wasn’t sure how many farmers would qualify for an exemption. About 2,500 livestock farmers operate in the area where the ban will be in effect, he said.

“To be honest, this next couple of years, there’s going to be a lot of growing pains,” said Hill, a Zanesville Republican and farmer. He said lawmakers did not want to scare producers to the point where they didn’t want to remain in business. “Animal agriculture is vital to Ohio.”

Hill said lawmakers have given the administration “the teeth they need to enforce the law” should the farmer violate the manure rules.

Legislators have been hung up on how the ban would be enforced and whether farmers should be punished for violations.

The proposal would require the agriculture and natural resource committees of the General Assembly to review the manure and fertilizer ban within three years. The proposal also would require water treatment plants to monitor phosphorous levels.

“We know Lake Erie’s challenges are not just about agriculture, so the bill works to address other factors as well,” said Sen. Randy Gardner, who brought forward the legislation in the Senate.

Environmental groups and the Ohio Farm Bureau expressed support for the revised bill, saying it struck the right balance.

“It recognizes a reality that you can’t just flip a switch and make these changes overnight,” said Joe Cornely, a farm bureau spokesman.

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Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo contributed to this report.

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